If you’ve been supporting the U’s for fewer than sixty-six years – that’s most of you, then – you might think that our club’s quest for a new ground is a recent thing.
Younger supporters will be aware of our landlord’s attempts within the last few years to develop a sporting village featuring a state-of-the-art stadium at Trumpington.
That grand scheme fell by the wayside, as have attempts over the last twenty years to get developments going at Milton, up towards Quy on the Newmarket Road, on various sites in the city and in the Ian Darler’s back garden. I made that last one up.
There have also been numerous ill-fated plans for the redevelopment and/or expansion of the Abbey. Most of them got no further than the drawing board before being pooh-poohed by the city council’s planners, but we did get as far as the erection of the South Stand before the rest of that scheme, which would have involved the redevelopment of the front of the ground, was shelved.
That’s all recent history, and the saga isn’t finished yet. We’re waiting to hear whether the Abbey will be redeveloped some day or whether we’ll eventually be playing in a New Abbey somewhere else.
But United had occupied the present site for only twenty years when there was an outbreak of itchy feet among the club’s directors.
The first game on our present territory was played in 1932. Before that United played on the Midsummer and Stourbridge Commons, on Parker’s Piece and at the fabulously named Celery Trenches, very close to the present site of the Abbey.
But delve into the minutes of 1952 board meetings and you’ll find references to the mooted new ground directors wanted to build on the opposite side of Newmarket Road, just the other side of Barnwell Bridge.
If their work had borne fruit, the U’s would have come full circle with a return to the place that saw the first Abbey United games in 1912 – Stourbridge Common.
The summer of 1952 saw an army of volunteers levelling and draining the playing area, squaring it up properly for the first time and building new terracing, an entrance and a pay box at the Allotments End.
But their efforts might have counted for nothing if plans for a ground on a new 15-acre site owned by the city council had succeeded.
What was wrong with the Abbey? The minutes of one meeting recorded the board’s concerns about its size and physical limitations. ‘In view of the smallness of the ground upon which [United] play, and of its danger to the public when either entering or vacating the ground,’ noted the secretary, 'there will eventually be a restriction as to the number of spectators permitted on the ground, in conjunction with the city police authorities, and with this in view there will be very little chance of authority being given for ground improvements of any dimensions except for the barest necessities.’
The club had taken its first steps into the brave new world of professionalism five years previously, when it entered the United Counties League, and was now moving relentlessly towards a full-time professional set-up. Ambition was sky high and the ultimate goal was the Football League.
But the Newmarket Road ground (it would be some years before it was known as the Abbey Stadium) could act as a brake on that progress, it was thought.
The board minutes reported: ‘It is of course realised that a professional club has come into being, but the ground upon which they play is very small, and although the ground upon which they play has been reserved as an open private space, the ground itself will not permit any crowds of large dimensions, especially as the public enter and leave the ground upon a “bottle neck” on the main road.’
Board members busied themselves behind the scenes by lobbying the planners, but to no avail: the city council objected to the proposed development. It had, it said, acquired the land in question for use as a refuse tipping area and in the longer term it wanted it to be zoned for storing civil defence materials – Cold War tensions and fears of nuclear war were high at the time – or for use as a lorry park.
The chief constable weighed into the debate, saying that, even if United reached the Third Division and attracted crowds of 15,000, dispersing them from the current ground wouldn’t pose much of a problem. And that was that.
But we can still have some fun in trying to identify the land that United wanted to occupy.
Much of it is today occupied by the industrial estate, just the other side of the bridge, where some supporters park on a match day. Before that, and before the council used it as a tip, it played an important role in the history of Cambridge’s brickmaking industry.
For the last twenty years of the nineteenth century and the first thirty of the twentieth, Newmarket Road was the focal point of an industry that made use of the thick seam of ‘blue’ gault clay that lay beneath Barnwell. The bricks it produced are preserved in the distinctive pale cream of the Cambridge area’s houses and public buildings.
When, in 1977, Hilda Swann set about jotting down her memories of the brickyards whose factories, chimneys and huge clay pits once dotted the area, she recalled four operations.
To the left of the road if you were heading into the city, opposite Stanley Road, was the business of Watts & Co, which was also a timber merchant. Further along was the Cambridge Brick Company’s yard.
The Cambridge (Stourbridge) Brick Company was approached from Cheddars Lane, the other side of Newmarket Road, while near Barnwell Bridge stood Swann’s Brickyard, part of a larger family business founded by Hilda’s ancestors Henry John and Alfred Swann, and trading under the name of H&A Swann Brothers. The Swanns’ land is the area we’re interested in.
It extended to Garlic Row, and until Stourbridge Fair, once Europe’s largest annual marketplace, finally faded into history in the early 1930s, the fence along this edge had to be set back to make room for the business of selling and merrymaking. The other boundaries were formed by the Common, the railway and Newmarket Road.
Ever wondered how Swanns Road got its name? Now you know.
I’m happy to give a plug to 100 Years of Coconuts’ second home and the priceless source of a wealth of local history: the Cambridgeshire Collection. It’s where the photograph of HC Swann and his employees at the brickyard, taken in about 1910, comes from and also where you can find Hilda Swann’s beautifully handwritten memories.
It’s also where those United board meeting minutes can be found, among an invaluable stash of documents and other artefacts donated to the Collection by one of those directors who were in 1952 dreaming of relocation: local signwriting legend Cyril Swainland.
The map reproduced above comes from a time when ‘Marshalls Ltd’ still offered cars for hire and driving tuition by ‘qualified RAC instructors’, and when our neighbours across the river were still known as Cambridge Town.